Driven to distraction: examining the influence of distractors on search behaviours, performance and experience

Leif Azzopardi, David Maxwell, Martin Halvey, Claudia Hauff

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution book

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Advertisements, sponsored links, clickbait, in-house recommendations and similar elements pervasively shroud featured content. Such elements vie for people's attention, potentially distracting people from their task at hand. The effects of such "distractors" is likely to increase people's cognitive workload and reduce their performance as they need to work harder to discern the relevant from non-relevant. In this paper, we investigate how people of varying cognitive abilities (measured using Perceptual Speed and Cognitive Failure instruments) are affected by these different types of distractions when completing search tasks. We performed a crowdsourced within-subjects user study, where 102 participants completed four search tasks using our news search engine over four different interface conditions: (i) one with no additional distractors; (ii) one with advertisements; (iii) one with sponsored links; and (iv) one with in-house recommendations. Our results highlight a number of important trends and findings. Participants perceived the interface condition without distractors as significantly better across numerous dimensions. Participants reported higher satisfaction, lower workload, higher topic recall, and found it easier to concentrate. Behaviourally, participants issued queries faster and clicked results earlier when compared to the interfaces with distractors. When using the interfaces with distractors, one in ten participants clicked on a distractor—and despite engaging with a distractor for less than twenty seconds, their task time increased by approximately two minutes. We found that the effects were magnified depending on cognitive abilities—with a greater impact of distractors on participants with lower perceptual speed, and for those with a higher propensity of cognitive failures. Distractors—regardless of their type—have negative consequences on a user’s search experience and performance. As a consequence, interfaces containing visually distracting elements are creating poorer search experiences due to the "distractor tax" being placed on people's limited attention.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCHIIR 2023 - Proceedings of the 2023 Conference on Human Information Interaction and Retrieval
EditorsJacek Gwizdka, Soo Young Rieh
Place of PublicationNew York, NY
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9798400700354
Publication statusPublished - 20 Mar 2023
EventCHIIR '23: ACM SIGIR Conference on Human Information Interaction and Retrieval - Austin, United States
Duration: 19 Mar 202323 Mar 2023


ConferenceCHIIR '23
Abbreviated titleCHIIR '23
Country/TerritoryUnited States


  • distraction
  • search behaviours
  • performance
  • experience
  • cognitive load
  • information retrieval


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